Building muscle mass and strength is possible after the age of 35
You might have heard that it becomes harder to put on muscle as you get older. That may be true, but we don’t know at what age that begins and we can’t be sure the degree to which it occurs. These types of things are very individual anyway, so it’s hard to figure out how it might relate to you. If you do the right things, it’s possible to build muscle and be in the best shape of your life after 35.
Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle tissue, strength, and function, is generally associated with aging, but there’s evidence to indicate that lack of activity could be a greater factor in the way this occurs. As a natural physique athlete over 35, and a coach to many lean and muscular people who are 35 and better, I have a vested interest in the ideal way of building muscle in the middle years. With some small adaptations, the best way of building muscle after 35 isn’t really that different from muscle growth in the 20s and early 30s.
Here are some guidelines to build muscle naturally in the post-35 years:
1) Weight Train 3-5X per week
The National Association of Sports Medicine says that after 35, you lose from 0.5% to 1% of your muscle mass per year. That may sound scary, but the catch is that you’ll lose muscle at that rate if you DON’T exercise. Any form of exercise can reduce muscle mass loss, but it seems likely – since weight training builds more muscle than jogging or tennis, for instance – that weight training is the best choice because it optimizes muscle growth. Keep in mind that if you were able to maintain your muscle mass in your 20s with only a couple of weight training sessions a week, you may now need 3 or 4 days of weight training to maintain and build muscle.
Very heavy, low-rep (1-5) training has a place if you enjoy powerlifting, but moderately-heavy, moderate-rep (6-12) training is where the most muscle hypertrophy happens. Normally 30-90secs rest is ideal for muscle growth, but some athletes, especially older ones, may benefit from longer periods of rest to maximize strength and mechanical tension (provided by the load of the weight you’re using). Occasionally using a 2 minute rest period may help you build your muscular potential.
2) Rest More
As we get older, we usually need more rest and recovery from training sessions…and the harder your sessions the more rest you’ll need. Training with weights seven days a week – hard – isn’t beneficial for any natural athlete (steroids allow more frequent training because they enhance recovery). Your muscles need rest in order to recover and grow. You want to stimulate your muscles, not annihilate them.
Men tend to need more rest anyway, since they have more muscle mass than women, so an older man particularly might need to take longer breaks between weights sessions. Two days of lifting, followed by a day off, and then another couple of days, is probably better than trying to do 3 or 4 days in a row.
The other important aspect of rest is sleep. Additional responsibilities (work, family, kids, aging parents, a mortgage) that the 35+ crowd have, can be a factor is having less sleep and poorer quality of sleep. Prioritize getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night so you can optimize your growth hormone levels and give your muscles a chance to repair and grow.
3) Eat More Protein
Maximum muscle anabolism (growth) happens only when the body’s protein requirements are met. Current research suggests that meeting a minimum of 30g of protein per meal can help maintain muscle and control body fat levels. My recommendation is generally 1g of protein per pound of body weight per day (so a 170 pound person should eat around 170g per day). Yup, that’s the standard bodybuilding recommendation, and it’s pretty sensible. Getting more than 1g per pound probably isn’t necessary though.
Protein is especially important in older trainees, because it appears that the need for protein for muscle repair and recovery increases as we age. If you feel like you struggle to digest protein, it may be because your levels of the stomach acid HCL are low. This also tends to happen with age, as levels of HCL tend to decline. That may be why you don’t have the iron-clad stomach of your 20s anymore!
4) Take Care of Injuries
While this is important at any age, older weight lifters need to pay closer attention to signals their body is giving them. If you feel a twinge in your knee or your shoulder when you’re training, make sure to make adjustments or even stop the exercise you’re doing altogether. Injuries tend to take longer to heal as you get older so prevention is key. Although you might have “gotten away” with wrecking your body with training in your 20s, listening to what your body’s telling you pays big dividends when you get older. Fewer injuries, and injuries treated quickly, means more time spent back training and working towards that coveted muscle.
5) Warm Up Thoroughly and Stretch as Necessary
A warm-up, preferably with a progressive dynamic one, is a good start to any workout. As you get older, a longer and more thorough warm-up may be beneficial for getting the most from your strength workout, and for preventing injuries.
Stretching after your workout is also useful for preventing tightness in the areas you’ve worked and preventing muscle imbalances. That’s not to say that you should do a yoga class (unless you really want to) or spend 45 minutes stretching at the end of a weights session. Most people have tight hamstrings and hip flexors from sitting all day, and can benefit from stretching those muscles after a lower body session. The chest and neck muscles can also become tight from exercise and poor sitting posture, and benefit from stretching at the end of a session when muscles are pliable.
We’re not sure how much muscle mass loss over time is due to aging and how much is due to a reduction in frequency and intensity of physical activity. Research with masters athletes in their 60s showed that their motor units (skeletal muscle plus the motor neuron innervating it) were comparable to active adults in their mid-20s. These athletes were runners. Think about how much more muscle you can gain and maintain if you do weight training, since running doesn’t maximize muscle gain.
A very inspiring study by the University of Oklahoma, compared 24 college-aged men with 25 middle-aged (35-50) men during an 8-week split-routine, linear periodized training program. Strength increases occurred in both groups, but interestingly, the older men actually lost significantly more fat mass and decreased body fat mass (through building more muscle) than the college men.
You may have already found that building muscle after 35 is more challenging than it was in your younger years. Various factors can be part of this, including increased responsibilities, more stress, less sleep, and hormonal changes. Still, it’s starting to look like what was considered inevitable aging may be more to do with a reduction in physical activity. Follow the plan above to build muscle naturally after 35…and keep it as you head into your golden years.